Tag Archives: articles my dad sent me

The Horror

January 5, 1929 — I have now fully resolved to kill Doctor Henry Moore, and a recent incident has shown me how I shall do it… A party from Uganda brought in a black with a queer illness which I can’t yet diagnose. He was lethargic, with a very low temperature, and shuffled in a peculiar way. Most of the others were afraid of him and said he was under some kind of witch-doctor spell; but Gobo, the interpreter, said he had been bitten by an insect. Spectral-looking — I don’t wonder the boys lay it to black magic. They seem to have seen cases like it before, and say there’s really nothing to do about it.
— H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death,” 1933

The Kingdom of Mali, 1375. It is the golden age of this African empire, with trade flourishing between its polar cities of Marrakesh and Timbuktu. Islam is growing here in Central Africa, due to a persuasive peace between local Central Africans and educated immigrant Arabs. But the kingdom is ruled by a cruel and arrogant despot, Sultan Diata II, whose lavish train of elephants, slaves, and golden carriages on his pilgrimage to Mecca made the continent gasp at his ostentatious display of wealth. Unfortunately for Diata, his days of opulence are numbered. The North African historian Ibn Khaldoun wrote that the Sultan “had been smitten with the sleeping sickness, which frequently affects the inhabitants of that region, especially the chieftains… Those afflicted are virtually never awake or alert. Sultan Diata had suffered for a duration of two years, after which, he died.”

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Web Design

A friend recently asked me about what to do about the black widow that was spinning a web over her entire sliding glass back door. (When you are the naturalist among your friends, you tend to get a lot of extermination questions.) To be perfectly frank, I hate spiders. Whenever I make the conscious choice not to squash a spider on sight, I give myself a little mental cookie, much the way I do when I put an aluminum can in the recycling bin. Call it the Indiana Jones principle: You’re allowed to be creeped out by one type of animal. I don’t understand some people’s fear of snakes, but I can respect tolerate it. I know some bad-ass people who are afraid of rats. I love most animals. Just not spiders.

But I do love a well-spun spiderweb. A dew-dappled spiderweb early in the morning is a thing of supreme beauty, and the silk itself is an awe-inspiring substance. Normal spider silk has the tensile strength of steel, while the silk of the Darwin’s Bark Spider is ten times stronger than Kevlar. Most silk lines are only a few microns across, but if a spider could weave a strand the width of a pencil, that strand could conceivably stop a Boeing 747 in mid-flight. What’s more, spiders are capable of weaving up to 8 different kinds of silk from its spinneret glands: silk for draglines, silk for wrapping egg sacs, silk for wrapping prey, silk for parachutes, etc. And not every web is the classic “spiral orb;” webs are also designed as tubes, funnels, tangles, sheets, and domes.

However, the spider I want to focus on today is an orb-weaver, the Australian St. Andrew’s Cross spider, pictured above. Members of the Argiope family, such as the St. Andrew’s Cross, are often called “garden spiders,” or “writing spiders,” on account of their habit of decorating their webs with flourishes that sometimes resemble language. The name for these decorative markings are stabilimenta.

Argiope aurantia. Don’t read too much into it.

At first glance, the “X” shaped stabilimentum of the St. Andrew’s Cross spider seems to have an obvious purpose: the make the spider’s silhouette less obvious to both predators and prey. But stabilimenta take many forms and shapes with spiders all over the world, and the reasons for them are legion, varied, and mysterious.

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